THE system for handling asylum seekers in the North-East is verging on collapse following a massive increase in the numbers arriving in the region, an investigation by The Northern Echo has revealed.

Charity workers have told how they are desperately struggling to cope with the tide of "invisible people".

Now a North-East MP is to intervene with the Home Office, asking it to take account of the growing crisis in the region.

Over the past two years, the number of stowaways arriving in the region on ferries and trucks has rocketed from less than 50 a year to up to 300 a month.

These stowaways do not qualify for food vouchers until the Home Office agrees to consider their applications for asylum - and that can take months.

In the meantime, they are placed into the care of the North of England Refugee Service.

The service, which has five offices covering the region, originally signed a "one-stop service" contract to fulfil this function for seven working days.

But now it is being left to provide newcomers with food, shelter, clothing and every other necessity for up to five months.

Daoud Zaaroura, the Refugee Service's chief executive, said: "Stowaways are the responsibility of no one. Local authorities have no obligations to them. We're the only organisation providing this level of support and our resources are hardly coping.

"There's concern that unless some other partners or more resources are brought in, people will be left without any kind of support and on the streets."

One of the sharpest rises in asylum seekers has been felt on Teesside, where there have been frequent arrivals on ferries coming into Teesport. Over 18 days in October, 62 asylum seekers came to the area.

Pete Widlinski, a team leader in the Refugee Service's Middlesbrough office, admitted that cold and traumatised stowaways have been put in properties without central heating or hot water.

"There have been times when we have just had to ring up landlords and send people straight there," he said. "We don't always have time initially to inspect properties."

Major Malcolm Holt, of the Salvation Army's Southfield Road citadel, in Middlesbrough, gives food to four or five asylum seekers a week.

"When they come, they say they are hungry and need something to eat," he said. "We give them some food, but we haven't got a great deal. Something needs to be done."

The plight of the stowaways comes to light shortly after the Home Secretary, David Blunkett promised an overhaul of the system of dispersing asylum seekers, set up to relieve the pressure on traditional entry points in the South.

He has pledged to scrap the vouchers system and build four accommodation centres to hold 3,000 asylum applicants at a time, but sites have yet to be identified.

Redcar MP Vera Baird promised to raise the issue with the Home Office and ask for interim measures before the overhaul takes effect.

"These are invisible people," she said. "The real worry is that they will just disappear and end up working in sweatshops. The situation is clearly unsatisfactory.

"The Home Office hasn't taken into account that asylum seekers are coming into the North-East and people don't have the resources to deal with them.